The minute the final whistle sounded at PPL Park Saturday night, I knew immediately the reaction I’d hear from non-soccer fans. “0-0? That’s why I can’t get into soccer! ‘Not enough scoring!” It’s a difficult point to argue with people weaned on 27-point football scores, 100-point basketball run-ups and baseball and hockey teams that have had occasionally potent offenses over the past decade or so. Never mind that hockey and baseball also feature regularly-occuring defensive battles and that the Eagles have scored as much as 17 points plenty of times in recent years only to give-up 30, which is not exactly the most thrilling sort of thing to endure. And while I love the Sixers, the truth is, the majority of basketball games go back and forth and really don’t gear-up until the second half, or even the fourth quarter.
Soccer, I’ll grant the average sports fan, is a different animal. Despite what looks to be a gaping net with a goalie who can only cover about a 20th of the space at any given moment, goals are indeed hard to get, especially in the MLS where ball control and defense have steadily improved in recent years. It takes skill to net a ball and near perfect execution, hard to come by when the majority of your team spends an entire 90 minutes in all sorts of weather, wearing themselves out as they cover the enormous space that makes-up a soccer pitch.
Of course, give the sport a few tries and this quickly occurs to the average fan. The athleticism and stamina become marvels to watch. And when a great, creative play develops and works—or is thwarted by the excellent effort of a goalie or defender—it is as thrilling a thing to see as anything in sport.
This is why I’m not bothered by last weekend’s 0-0 draw. The Union (8-6-7) started slow on the ball and had trouble connecting with their passes for the first 10 or 15 minutes, but as the game evolved, they got their legs. By the end of the match, they were pressing in a way that is fast becoming a trademark of the John Hackworth-led club, always pushing for the goal at the end, never content for the tie. It was exciting to watch.
Meanwhile, on the other end, Portland was mainly frustrated. It was obvious that the Timbers are a talented team with several gifted individuals who can do magic with the ball. But magic only leads to something if you can fool everyone all the time, and nearly every instance of a Portland player springing free on Saturday night was followed by a wall thrown-up by the next Union defender (or two), snuffing-out chance after chance. The Timbers only got about three decent attempts on net and those were all swatted away with crowd-pleasing saves by Zac MacMath.
It’s a shame the home side didn’t score, but boring? After about the 15th minute, there was nothing boring about that match at all. It will be a long time before I forget Conor Casey’s strike in the closing minutes that was batted away from the near corner at the last instant by a diving Donovan Ricketts (I was sitting directly behind the shot, which was probably the most exciting angle to track it).
Soccer is one of the few sports where every game is a nail-biter, from start to finish, where the importance of ball-control, health of the 11 on the field, and temperament is constantly being challenged. There are no breaks for the player who’s manhandled without a referee’s call, or who misses a perfect opportunity and has the energy and enthusiasm sucked out of him in the same instant. It’s always reset, flush away the negative and get back to work with these players (at least until their coach permanently pulls them out). There are no breaks. Every second counts.
On Saturday, the Union picked-up a valuble point against one of the better clubs in the league. It was a nice effort overall with plenty of excitement, and played before an enthusaistic, sell-out, fireworks crowd of well over 18,000 to boot. It’s too bad the uninformed will see nothing but the 0-0 final and make their rushed judgements. They’re missing-out on something very special.
McINERNEY’S BACK: The Union’s leading scorer played most of the match before being subbed-out late. It was nice seeing Jack back on the field following his stint with the US Men’s Team, but it was a bad night to get the scoring thing going again with talented Portland defenders in his face for the duration and the Oregon midfielders and forwards corps doing a great job of controlling the ball and getting in the way of upfield feeds. It also occured to me that in Jack’s absence, others stepped-up their game and got more involved in the goal-getting. It will be interesting to see whether it’s Jack carrying the load again once the ball starts going in for Philadelphia, or if the more balanced attack of recent weeks is what wins-out. The next chance to find-out is Saturday night in Vancouver against another talented squad from the Western Conference in the 9-6-5 Whitecaps.
STANDINGS: The Union is still in 4th Place in the East with 31 points and still just 1-point behind both New York and Montreal, who each also played to scoreless draws this weekend. The road match in Vancouver won’t be easy, but no more difficult than the challenge Portland posed. After that, following a home friendly with Stoke City, the schedule gets easier with home matches against Chicago and DC United on August 3 and 10, respectively.